Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The case of the missing address book

Tim O'Reilly blogs about the missing Web 2.0 address book. He says:

What really needs to be done is not just to connect the various social networks that do exist in internet network-of-networks style, but also to social-network enable our real social network apps: our IM, our email, our phone. Where, I keep asking vendors, is the Web 2.0 address book?
Spot-on Tim! Why is it that, in spite of all this emphasis on community and collaboration, managing my address book is still painful? The various elements of our communications tools need to be linked together effectively, and the best place for that link is in an address book. My address book is still largely an offline entity, despite some rudimentary efforts at linking it to my online world (e.g. the Outlook Toolbar from LinkedIn). I can import my Outlook contacts into Gmail, but I can't keep them in sync. Plaxo was a promising start to solving this problem, but they became yet another social network, not the linking mechanism between networks.

What should a web 2.0 address book look like? Here are some characteristics I think are key:
  • Always available. It goes without saying - I should have my address book available online and offline, on all my computers and mobile devices, and they should always be in sync. This has been an area of active investment, and solutions are getting better, but its still cumbersome to keep things in sync.
  • Easily portable. I own my address book, and no vendor should use their functionality, no matter how cool, for lock-in. Ideally the address book should store data in a human-readable format to begin with. If not, I should always be able to export into a variety of standard formats.
  • Proactive. Today's model requires my active participation for every contact that gets stored in my address book. A good address book should anticipate some of my needs and act for me. For example, if I've exchanged a couple of emails with someone who is not in my address book, it should try and find that person's contact info (e.g. from LinkedIn, or some other source) and add it to my address book (perhaps asking me for confirmation first). If someone updates an email address on orkut and that person is connected to me, my address book should know about it and act appropriately. Plaxo tried to do some of this, but their fatal flaw was that they were not neutral. Which brings me to my next point.
  • Neutral. The provider of this functionality must be neutral in the areas of social networking and collaboration. If LinkedIn provided this functionality they would attempt to lock my address book to their network. If Yahoo IM provided this functionality, they would likely restrict access to Gmail, and so on. The address book provider must not have a stake in the network, but only in the links between them.

  • Mediate trust relationships. I already have multiple places in which I've placed indications of trust. Anyone linked to me on LinkedIn list is a trusted relationship. Anyone on my Yahoo IM list is probably also a trusted relationship. Ditto for people I've had multiple email exchanges with. How can I aggregate this information in one place and manage trust centrally. One way in which this could be useful, for example, is that recommendation sites could use my trust information to appropriately weight the recommendations I got. Amazon.com would recommend stuff not only based on their collaboration filtering techniques (essentially statistical analysis) but also factor in my trusted relationships. If I was looking for an Italian restaurant in Palo Alto, I'd much rather hear what a few trusted people have to say about it than a mass of strangers.
  • Geo-aware. The contacts in my address book usually have location information stored in the record. Why is this information not used for a visual representation of my address book? For example, if I'm going to Chicago for a weekend trip, wouldn't it be great to map my friends in Chicago, so that I might get in touch with them while I'm there? And wouldn't it be even better if I could find restaurants in the vicinity so that we could meet for dinner at a mutually convenient location.
  • Presence-aware. My address book should have a notion of where I am, and take appropriate action based on my preferences. E.g. point out a good used-book store in the neighborhood (I'm always up for browsing in a good used-book store). Or alert me that a friend is nearby and I might want to get in touch.
How would this ideal address book provider make money? I leave that as an exercise for the reader. :-)